June 6, 2012

Why Must-See-TV Is History; But Is It The End of "Shared" Pop Culture?

With 200+ Channels, DTV, On-Demand, DVRs, Roku, Hulu and and personal libraries of DVDs, a veteran TV guy ponders the future of one of pop culture's most prominent channels ...

A recurring theme here at "Harvest Gold Memories" is that in the days before digital cable TV and 200+ channels, DVRs, On-Demand programming, YouTube, Hulu and Roku streaming internet video players, TV viewers had much more of a shared, collective experience with this particular form of pop culture (television).  Indeed, as "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?" authors Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont wrote in the introduction to their book (check out my coverage of that book HERE):

"For a supposedly fractured generation, we kids of the 1970s and 1980s share a far more universal past than kids today.  We all watched the same five channels, shopped at the same few chain stores, hummed the same commercial jingles."

That "shared" element is something that's lost when truly customizable TV programming has become the norm, and the trend away from it appears likely to continue.  For advertisers, its easier to sell to different niches of consumers than to try and do mass-marketing.  Although advertisers aren't the only factor behind this trend, they play an important role.

It's for this reason that I found a recent (April 30, 2012) NPR "All Things Considered" interview with former President of NBC, Warren Littlefield very interesting and informative.  Mr. Littlefield posits (and I'm inclined to agree with him) that there will like never again be an experience like what NBC television called "Must See TV" back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Have a listen below, or by visiting NPR at http://n.pr/L2VEB2:

I'm not one to dwell too heavily on a past that cannot be resurrected, but I do find the issue interesting for a variety of reasons.  Notably, it makes me wonder just how sustainable the notion of being an "American" really is anymore?  One need only look at election results over the past 25 years or so to see the incredible fracturing taking place (according to a new report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Americans' values and "basic beliefs" are more polarized today than at any point in the past 25 years).  But politics aside, there is similar fracturing in a once largely-homogenous U.S. pop culture, especially television and to some extent, radio, too.  Mr. Littlefield described what's happened this way:

"We lose some of that massive collective experience," he said, "and that will never come back."

But less anyone be led to believe that all the hyper-fragmentation is good for all parties involved, don't be mistaken: Mr. Littlefield believes it's not specificity that viewers want most; rather it's good television. He added "I think what audiences covet, really, are the high-quality."

Neither he, nor anyone else in television, see the old days with massive TV audiences coming back.  However, we ARE seeing a return to some actual sitcoms after a nightmare of almost nothing but bad reality TV shows on almost every network for several seasons.  Those were seen as cheap to produce, with a cast that worked for free, but who the hell wants to watch reruns of past seasons of American Idol, The Amazing Race, Survivor or The Bachelor/Bachelorette?  That's completely disposable entertainment whose appeal dissipates when the conclusion is aired.

As for quality programming, we're seeing a mixed bag on that.  There are some standouts, but with so many choices, I suspect the creativity of networks and TV producers is being stretched a bit thin.  For every standout like Modern Family or Glee, there are also duds like The Playboy Club or Unforgettable (apparently, it was forgettable, it ended after just 1 season, with the final episode on May 8, 2012).

I would say much of the reason "Must See TV" is history is driven by technology.  Today, viewers don't see television as something they need to schedule their evenings around, but as something that comes to them whenever (and wherever) they want it.  The VCR was the first move in this direction, but few people could really program them (heck, few people could even set the damn clocks!), then came DVRs which made it sooo much easier.  Along with that, we have digital cable with on-demand, as well as streaming internet video via Netflix, Hulu or other sites.  Even if you don't pay for television, digital broadcast tripled the number of VHF TV stations available, and now includes things like RTV (Retro Television) or Antenna TV.  And you can even set your DVR to record something with your mobile phone so it records something you can watch when you get home.

If you're interested in learning more, Mr. Littlefield has a book available entitled "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV" by Warren Littlefield and T. R. Pearson.  The book can purchased online, or downloaded as an ebook via the usual places (Amazon.com, iTunes, Google Play/Android Marketplace and elsewhere), or you can check it out at your local public library.  Besides the book, there's also a CD entitled "NBC: A Soundtrack Of Must See TV" containing theme songs featured on "Must See TV" consisting of around 50 songs.  That one, as I understand it, is only available on CD but you can likely find it online.

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